Sunday 5 September 2010

Writers Tears

A rather elegant and mysterious new whiskey appeared in the shops last year: Writers Tears, from the previously unknown Writers Tears Whiskey Company. It turns out that this whiskey did not spring fully-formed from the void but can trace its pedigree to The Irishman whiskey line-up.

The Irishman whiskeys are the inspired creations of Bernard Walsh. Bernard enjoys privileged access to the warehouses of certain Irish distillers from where he selects the casks that are vatted together to produce his whiskeys. Some years ago he came up with an entirely new type of whiskey: a blend of malt and pure pot still (PPS) whiskeys. This is a "pot still blend", since both malt and PPS are distilled in the traditional pot still. All other Irish blends contain some proportion of grain whiskey, the output of the less traditional Coffey still.

We see from the Writers Tears label that it is one of these pot still blends. The label goes on to describe the contents as "a style of whiskey popular in Joyce's Dublin". Grain whiskey is thoroughly uncontroversial these days but in the early twentieth century (ie Joyce's era) it was a different story. The major Irish distillers like John Jameson were horrified by the thought of a spirit produced by a vulgar industrial process being passed off as "whiskey". So they refused to adopt the Coffey still or to lighten their whiskeys with grain spirit. Writers Tears, which also eschews grain whiskey, harks back to that "golden age" of traditional pot distillation.

I don't know the precise ratio of PPS to malt in Writers Tears but there is more PPS here than there was in the earlier Irishman 70 (which had 30% PPS to 70% malt). It is aged entirely in ex-Bourbon casks and its light toffee hue is entirely natural.

Remarkably, for a 40% ABV whiskey, Writers Tears is not chill-filtered. Chill-filtration removes some of the suspended components in whiskey that are prone to clumping together at low temperatures, giving the whiskey a hazy appearance. It doesn't affect the taste, but it's considered a cosmetic defect so manufacturers filter out these components before bottling.

The trouble with chill-filtration is that it's the suspended and dissolved components that give a whiskey its individual taste. They speak of the original grain and the process the whiskey underwent - fermentation, distillation, maturation - before it reached the bottle. To remove some of these components is to risk diminishing the character of the whiskey.

Bernard Walsh puts the whiskey first. Although it means that some markets will not accept the whiskey, he has bypassed the chill-filtration step entirely and released Writers Tears with its flavour unabated.

How does it taste? Wonderful! Bright, balanced, rich, no flaws at all - no bitterness, no dry woodiness separating out in the finish, no one note dominating. And the price: €35 in Dublin. There is no doubt in my mind that this is the best Irish whiskey you can buy at that price point. My drinks shelf will never be without a bottle.